Matthew Piepenburg tries to see beyond mere financial success to grasp the nature of the American dream.
Something feels wrong in the world–financially, morally, emotionally. Nassim Taleb once wrote that the opposite of success isn’t failure, it’s name-dropping, but I need to drop some names… At the Knickerbocker in NYC, for example, I recently had an audience with Alan Greenspan (former Chairman of the Fed); not long afterward, I had a few drinks in Berlin with the head of a major German bank. Net result: these masters of the universe were terrified. Things are falling apart. Our country (as well as Europe and Japan) is broke while 2% of the population accumulates more money than the combined wealth of the remaining 98%. Market gurus who sold dog shit masquerading as investment grade securities have bankrupted an entire system while covering their asses with default swap insurance and federal bailouts. Meanwhile, our leaders appear to have all the social altruism and fiscal sophistication of game show hosts. But this is not an economics rant or a mean poke at the ruling elite. I’m more worried about the rest of us, the regular Joes making 70k/year yet leasing BMW’s and buying homes they couldn’t afford. Truth is, rich or not rich, too many of us are trying to look better than we are and get more than we need. Too many of us are chasing false idols.
Yes, something feels wrong out there. Cornel West called it spiritual malnourishment–the loss of substance to form, the victory of surface over souls. There’s a crisis of priority, of meaning, and a lack of examples to follow. The majority of our heroes are celebrities famous for being famous rather than putting themselves at risk for anything greater than their own careers. Statistically, we spend more time as a nation watching TV or ordering martinis than we do connecting with our lovers, children or families. The media, caught in some bipolar piety and hypocritical sanctimony straight out of a Hawthorne novella, considers the sex lives of fallen golfers and starlets as newsworthy. Today, people actually go on TV and compete among a house of women for a husband and then label the result true love. It’s entertaining. Yes. And we need entertainment. We need a break from the pace of the American work week. We need to unwind, to get drunk, mock our failed capitalism and bi-partisan stand-offs and then watch The Bachelor—Right?
No. Personally, I think the poet Octavio Paz was right: we live in age of mud, in what another poet, Robert Bly, described as a celebrity-mad population of idiots. I think we’ve sold ourselves short and settled for less as individuals and as a society. I think the C- mentality has become the backbone of our nation and that de Tocqueville was on to something some 200 years ago when he warned about the dangers of American individualism drowning under the peer pressure of fitting in. Such collective thinking leads to mediocre thinking, and thus mediocre judgement, mediocre decisions, values, choices. Our TV’s, our magazines and our billboards are polluted with images, testimonies, standards, confusions, advisors, tag lines, jingles, experts and egos who collectively speak not of truth or humility, but of entertainment, distraction, and the shit that twentysomething copywriters push at us. Knowingly or unknowing, most of what pours through our senses are glittering lies. It takes its toll on us, slowly, like a repetitive stress injury. We speak like advertisers and have lost the ability to communicate bravely, humbly, and most importantly: honestly.
And I want to speak honestly.
But there’s a danger in honesty. Candor often swings between extremes of self-serving confession and simple arrogance. Somewhere in the middle, however, the pendulum pauses at the truth, and the truth, when it is spoken for its own sake, teaches. We’ve all felt this, if only briefly. When something authentic is witnessed, when a man speaks not for attention but for connection, we feel a strange peace, an almost instinctive desire to lean into the teller’s words as a babe roots for a mother’s breast. Who has not surrendered to the tender value of an honest “I love you,” “I am afraid,” “I am sorry”, “help me,” “I do not know,” or best of all: “I fucked up, forgive me”? Such phrases, when uttered honestly, precede and conclude entire tomes of raw emotion and thus a chance at actual catharsis. In this, our era of twittered emotions, 24 hour news cycles, political pundits, wall street spin, bipartisan soundbites and Facebook intimacies, we are in particular need of unedited honesty. And yet moralists of every continent have warned that if for even a moment each man and woman were to truly speak their minds, society would collapse under the weight of our revelations, of our pure selves. How then, are we to exchange truthfully, and hence learn directly, if our most raw, terrified and proud selves fear crossing the lines of propriety? And how, when a man bows his head, exhausted from the game of social ritual, do we trust his courage? How, do we discern the braggart from the innocent, the confessor from the teacher, or the bitter rantings of a critic from the words of one who simply wishes to push aside etiquette and speak without a scorecard?
Let me try. Let me toe dip into the first-person and risk in these remaining paragraphs an honesty that may offend some, but connect me to others. Goethe warned that most authors write to show off rather than to teach or inspire. In telling my truth, in touching upon the topics of sex, money and power, I want to impart lessons learned rather than trophies won. The aim is to touch upon broken illusions from a man who experienced an unusual access to every curve of the American Dream. Some will confuse my sincerity for grandstanding. I’ve learned first-hand Hemingway’s warning that nothing burns at the mind more than opening your soul to a son-of-a-bitch.
So here’s my story.
Something unusual happened to me. For whatever reason, events, ambitions, mistakes, coincidences, conscious efforts and blind luck converged to grant me an atypical life—a life that exaggerates the American Dream. I tell parts of this story because the tale of my confusion is a proxy of our collective confusion, the confusion of measuring ourselves with things, ranks and entertainments rather than people, emotions, and deep connections. Our notions of what matters need a reality a check. Mine certainly did. Think of a young man who grew up poor in Michigan; a man who later ended up with a yacht in Palm Beach and a chateau in southern Europe by age 30. A man with polo ponies and conditional friends. A trilingual man with the titanium black American Express card and degrees from the best schools—Choate through Harvard. Think of a man who worked Wall Street, Hollywood and the spooky halls of international espionage. Think of a man who has known delirious acts in hotels around the world. Think of a man with (and then without) the gorgeous wife and perfect children. Think of a man who stopped working at age 29. That was me. The life one dreams of, strives after. The American Dream–the life that guarantees happiness.
But I was not happy. Not even close.
Was it the money? No. It would be too simple a cliché to say money corrupts (though it does) or that it cannot offer happiness. I tend to agree with the words of Sophie Tucker, who said: “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Trust me: rich is better.” I enjoyed freedom from fiscal worry. Money didn’t suck. Nor did I mind the attention it gave or the privileges that came in its wake. Men like money and women do too. Money leads to all kinds of “yes’s” in all kinds of circumstances, from the Maitre D to the mattress. So how could I be unhappy? I was young. I was traveling. I was playing polo in South America, living in France, bar-hopping in LA and landing in NYC for various nights of co-ed bliss in a Union Square apartment. Was the money and flesh corrupting me? Not really. In fact, not at all. Those were all pretty good times. Pleasant times. I liked those excesses. But like any excess, it leaves you feeling, well…tired.
So what was the real problem? Why, despite every symbol of bliss, did I feel this sincere, Gatsby-ish sense of WTF? Why, even after watching my fortunes fade in 08 did I worry so little about money and yet feel so poor inside? I think it’s because the American Dream gives more credit to illusion than substance, more face time to stuff than individuals, more respect for accomplishment than experience. In short, the American Dream twisted our notion of success, and the symptoms of this are everywhere. I know this, because I was uniquely twisted.
Here, alas, is my truth. The pleasures which we are told and trained to achieve—the kind we see in our schools, magazines, realty shows, billboards etc—you know, all the sexy, house-on-the-hill stuff that rains down on us from the day we are old enough to open compare sneakers—are dishonest. Dishonest not because they don’t offer pleasure, but dishonest because they don’t deliver joy. Pleasure is not the same as joy. The lasting joys, the kind not touched upon on The Bachelor, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, the Adult Channel or Entertainment Tonight, are the simplest of all, yet the hardest for many of us–even the best, most well-intended of us–to achieve. And what are these joys? The answer is simple: connection. Connection at the check-out line, connection taking your son’s hand; connection on the phone with a friend; connection saying I love you to a parent; connection in the arms of a lover who doesn’t measure you by your credit score or automobile; connection with the doorman, the taxi driver, the in-laws. We all know this. Some of us just forget. We get caught up in all there is to offer. The American Dream carries us a bit off course. We lose ourselves.
So why listen to me–the bragging ex “baller”? There’s nothing worse than a fucking know-it-all; there’s nothing more obnoxious than a soap-boxed ranting of sanctimony and platitudes from a self-proclaimed wise-man or recovering, humbled symbol of excess. I swear to God, I’m not even close to wise or recovered. Nor am I really that humble. What I am is blunt. I’m also exhausted, and my resistance to decorum (the most practiced but least important virtue) is gone. Finally, I am afraid. Afraid because I feel there’s something wrong with our era, our country, ourselves–not just our markets, our GDP, our bond spreads or nominal credit yields–but ourselves.
So what’s a better American Dream? Again: deep down we know the answer. We are wiser than the TV we watch, the actors we admire or the shit we buy. Deep down we feel better after making love than making bank…we feel better after a good conversation than a good stock pick. We know friends are more valuable than jobs. (An old man famously wrote that “your job won’t take care of you when you’re sick. Your friends will.”) Yes, deep down, we know the answer; each of us. We feel it. We scratch at it. We sense it just at the tip of our tongues and lurking beneath our common sense. Reader, go out and tonight and connect meaningfully, generously and purely with another. Don’t talk about your job, don’t mention the economy. Be daring. Lean into the table and say something terrifyingly honest. Ah…Now that’s wealth! And where does this pithy insight come from? It comes from one among the many who lived (and nearly suffocated) by the old definition of success. The American dreamer. The guy looking to get rich all over again. The twisted man who rose, fell down, brushed off the dust and discovered joy.
‘Jump For Joy’
36″ by 48″
by Robert D. Brooks
acrylic, gesso, spray paint, marker and grease pencil on exhibition canvas
Part of Robert Brooks Creative Commons collection on Flickr. Source photo by Sean McGrath